BMCR 2005.09.73

Rome’s Religious History. Livy, Tacitus and Ammianus on their Gods

, Rome's religious history : Livy, Tacitus, and Ammianus on their gods. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. ix, 341 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0521834821 $85.00.

“But the quality by which the Roman commonwealth distinguishes itself most of all is according to me its opinion on the gods”. With these words Polybius begins his brief digression on Roman religion [6.56.6-15]. This verdict is not inspired by any deep personal conviction concerning the power of the gods but rather by the practical cultic use of religion for maintaining the cohesion of society. There was no better way to keep the masses under control.

Did Roman historians hold similar pragmatic views, implying a sceptical attitude about the ‘intrinsic’ values of religion and, indeed, the real existence of the gods and their influence on human affairs? The author of the book under review rightly begins by drawing the reader’s attention to an indisputable fact: “these men were writing for a society that was not, for the most part, concerned whether the gods existed but rather with how they would impact on the human world” [2]. This entails the primacy of religious ‘technology’ above theology. Such a technology should not be equated with an almost cynical pragmatism on the part of people who know better but comply with the psychological needs of the ignorant. On the contrary, interpreting the divine signs and choosing the correct cultic measures to be taken needs a thorough and refined knowledge. For instance, classifying the prodigia which were reported was quite complicated and in any case required a considerable expertise in the various levels of explanation and the correct measures to be taken. In other words, there was a sophisticated system of interpretation and classification.

Having introduced the subject on pages 1-20, Davies then turns to the three historians whom he has singled out. Of these Livy receives by far the most attention: 120 pages, divided into two chapters. The first of these is for its greater part devoted to the historian’s treatment of prodigia. Davies pays much attention to the use of oratio recta in the reports of prodigia and, especially, to the various forms of oratio obliqua, which have often been taken as allowing “the historian to introduce material without vouching for it” [55] and even indirectly expressing doubts or scepticism. Remarkably, these analyses of passages in Livy’s text do not testify to any familiarity with modern linguistic techniques, such as discourse analysis. Evidently, there were no linguists among the scholars whose help and advice are acknowledged in the preface of the book. This does not deny that Davies is definitely on the right track with his repeated rejection of Livy’s scepticism. Generally speaking, such a scepticism would not at all tally with the fact that “the religious material is an integral part of a unified narrative” [46], and in particular cases a close reading of the text leads to comparable conclusions: Livy is sifting his material, aware of the need for critical analysis, but this has nothing to do with any rigid scepticism.

All reports on prodigia ended up in the hands of the official body which had the final responsibility for the interpretation and the subsequent cultic measures. Livy makes it perfectly clear that this was the Roman senate, which aimed at reaching practical results. For Livy “mastery of Roman religion was correct diagnosis of the varying factors in a given situation in order to produce an efficient and effective solution” [105]. One finds little theorizing in his account, which, however, does not point to a complete lack of interest in the existence of the gods or other entities governing the course of events. Time and again the gods are portrayed as playing an active role. This is amply discussed in Davies’ third chapter, in which the seriousness and the complexity of the interpretative system is further explored. Within this system fatum and fortuna have their own position, which is by no means restricted to being a sort of literary device in the narrative of events. The former acts, so to speak, on the limits of the entire system: it offers the broadest possible viewpoint from which the community could get a grip on what was going on. Fortuna, a word which is perhaps even more difficult to translate, rather reflects man’s uncertain experience of the gods’ will.

The religious system sketched by Livy will have been easier to understand for the contemporary reader, but an open-minded scholar is also able to acknowledge that, for all its trial and error, uncertainties and problems it proved able to negotiate critical situations. In fact, the proper working of Roman religion was not endangered by scepticism, but rather by the unrepublican behaviour of a charismatic personality like Scipio Africanus, who did not accept the limits of religious knowledge. Small wonder that one of the possible explanations of his remarkable behaviour was his being capti quadam superstitione animi [26.19.4]. Livy’s objections to this wrong type of religion are an instructive illustration of his view of what religion was about.

Tacitus receives eighty pages. As in other respects, his Rome had changed from the religious point of view too. The senate, which failed to find a truly satisfactory political course in its relations with the princeps, also went astray where the traditional rituals were concerned. Independent reports on prodigia have become few and far between, and the entire republican system, which is so familiar to every attentive reader of Livy, seems to have sunk into disrepair. Nevertheless, Davies emphatically refuses to ascribe any scepticism concerning religion and the gods to of the author. “What we do not see in Tacitus’ version of events is a fundamental disdain for religion” [185]. His problem is time and again that the system did not function properly, and therefore lacked the capacity to bring about the difficult balance between human and divine forces. At the beginning of the chapter Davies even speaks about the historian’s “idealized religious system”. Apart from the notable number of passages in which the author’s ‘conservative’ attitude comes out in a more intricate way, there are two chapters in the Historiae, which speak out very clearly. One occurs in the large digression on the Jews in book 5: at the beginning of ch. 13 Tacitus notes that, owing to their religious, or rather their superstitious, habits and convictions, the Jews did not perform expiatory rites when prodigia occurred. This is obviously the negative foil to proper and reliable religion in the Roman way. The other is the entire chapter 4.53. This contains a brilliant picture of the ceremony on June 21, 70, on the occasion of the refounding of the Capitoline temple, which had been destroyed when the Flavianists besieged Vitellius’ party, “the most deplorable and disgraceful event that had happened to Rome since the foundation of the city”, as Tacitus writes in Hist. 3.72.1. Davies is fully entitled to his judgment of the evocative sketch in Hist. 4.53: “this is more than antiquarian interest”. Indeed, it testifies to a belief in the possibility of a much needed renaissance of the traditional cultus deorum. One wonders whether Davies would not have done better by beginning his chapter on Tacitus with a full quotation of this description of the ceremonies on June 21, 70. This might have made it easier for the reader to understand his handling of Tacitus’ allusive critique of the deplorable developments in religious practice during the principate. In any case, attentive reading of the chapter mentioned, preferably with the helpful notes in Heubner’s commentary, is an excellent antidote against the assumption of scepticism in religiosis on the part of Tacitus.

After the 120 and 80 pages allotted to Livy and Tacitus respectively, Ammianus Marcellinus has to be content with sixty pages. This part is somewhat less convincing than the other two. Davies belongs to the hard core of the new orthodoxy which ascribes a continuous aggressive campaign against Christianity to Ammianus: “he uses all the erudite tools of his trade to undermine Christianity and enhance traditional rites” [232]. In other words, he is a pagan apologist. Of course, Ammianus was most certainly not a Christian, and his general religious convictions were coloured by a Neoplatonic world-view, which was perhaps founded on a more thorough familiarity with the relevant philosophical texts than has sometimes been assumed. Nevertheless, Davies’ uncritical adherence to Rike’s interpretation of Christianam religionem absolutam et simplicem [21.16.18] as denoting a religion below standard is somewhat simplistic, when Ammianus’ words are, for instance, compared to Macrobius’ Commentary 1.11.12. The word simplex has not the same connotation in every context. Consultation of Hiltbrunner’s old, but still most useful survey can be very helpful.1

Fortunately, the assumption of an ongoing hidden or open polemic with Christianity has not precluded worthwhile observations. Davies rightly pays much attention to a remarkable statement in Res Gestae 19.12.20, where the author notes that in his days portenta are no longer purified and therefore pass by ”without anyone hearing or knowing of them” [trans. W. Hamilton]. Ammianus, however, is less interested in expiation than in divination, which takes prime place in his historiographic account. Davies writes well on this subject and it is therefore the more disappointing that he does not discuss the views of Marie Theres Fögen, Die Enteignung der Wahrsager. Studien zum kaiserzeitlichen Wissensmonopol in der Spätantike, Frankfurt 1997, 151-171. In these pages she deals with Ammianus’ predilection for scientific explanation of ominous signs, such as earthquakes, eclipses, comets, without his eliminating the influence of divine forces, and his alarm at the tendency of the emperors (and their assistants) to appropriate a ‘knowledge monopoly’ in these matters, with serious violation of justice as a consequence.2

The last part of the chapter on Ammianus is devoted to fundamentals, such as the frequent use of numen in the singular in a ‘monotheistic’ sense,3 fortuna, fatum and, above all, iustitia or aequitas, about the functions of which in the historical process Davies develops some enlightening ideas.

“Religion is a powerful theme in the three authors scrutinized here” [286] is the first sentence of the brief concluding chapter. Davies is fully justified in writing this after his thorough and detailed expositions. In 1998 Denis Feeney published a learned study on the importance of Roman religious literature, mainly poetry, as a serious reflection of Roman religion.4 Mutatis mutandis Davies has done a comparable job for Roman historiography, a central aspect in which he has shown to be “religious formulation” [287].

The book is well-produced, with very few printing errors. A full index locorum and a useful subject index serve the reader well.


1. O. Hiltbrunner, Latina Graeca, Bern 1958, 15-105.

2. I am afraid that the absence of Fögen is part of a larger problem. Davies’ book contains a huge bibliography of wellnigh 700 titles, the overwhelming majority in English, but with a fair share of French publications. Over against these one can hardly gather a dozen German titles and for counting the Italian ones the fingers of one hand suffice.

3. One does not understand why he does not use the term ‘henotheistic’, which is far more flexible and suitable for the subject than ‘monotheistic’.

4. Denis Feeney, Literature and Religion at Rome. Cambridge UP, 1998.